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Team from Temasek Laboratories at NTU wins Defence Technology Prize for work countering Hardware Trojans

Prof. Gan Chee Lip, Director, Temaksek Lab@NTU

(Above left)

Traditionally the focus in cybersecurity has been on software containing malicious code. But there is another way to compromise your desktop, laptop, mobile phone or any other device with a microchip or integrated circuits (IC).

This could be accomplished through a hardware Trojan, a malicious modification of the circuitry of an IC. Integrated circuits are used in virtually all electronic devices today. Hardware Trojans would be very difficult to detect  and could be used as a ticking time-bomb, activated remotely at a certain time.

An IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) article says, “With the right design, a clever attacker can alter a chip so that it fails at a crucial time or generates false signals. Or the attacker can add a backdoor that can sniff out encryption keys or passwords or transmit internal chip data to the outside world.”

Today’s chips are extraordinarily complex to design and build and there are numerous opportunities in the manufacturing process to modify the chip. Detecting the modifications is highly challenging.

The Hardware Assurance Team from Temasek Laboratories, Nanyang Technological University (TL@NTU) has developed physical and circuit analysis techniques and software for advanced IC chips against hardware Trojans. For their work, the team has been awarded in the Defence Technology Prize, Team (R&D) category by the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

The Hardware Assurance team from TL@NTU is a cross-disciplinary group, comprising researchers from the School of Material Science & Engineering and the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the university.  

The work done by the team ensures the trustworthiness of electronics used in Singapore’s defence systems.

Working over the last 10 years, the team developed methodology, tools and techniques for depackaging, delayering and imaging of IC chips. Image processing time was reduced by half through innovative approaches and process flow. The team also developed intelligent computer algorithms for automated analysis of circuit functionality.

When asked about the possible use of the technology beyond non-defence purposes, Prof. Gan Chee Lip, Director, Temaksek Lab@NTU said that it can be used for non-defence purposes as well though there is a difference in the level complexity in the ICs in mobile phones and defence systems. The team is working to make the process more efficient. Still there will  be a cost associated with validating every chip. It then becomes a matter of how critical it is to ensure that the chip is notcompromised.

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